Telling the true story of what happened to the small town of Gander, Newfoundland in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Come From Away finally receives its triumphant UK premiere.
The show, with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein was first produced in Ontario in 2013 and has since had record breaking runs in San Francisco, Seattle, Washington and Toronto. Opening on Broadway in 2017 it is now the longest running Canadian musical there and it’s not difficult to see why.
September 11th 2001, for reasons at first unknown to those in the sky, American airspace is suddenly closed to all traffic. Planes are diverted with thirty eight of them having to land at Gander Airport, more used to seeing no more than half a dozen landings a day. With the population of the town almost doubling within a few hours, every resident springs into action to help out in whatever way they can.
An outstanding ensemble cast of twelve play the townsfolk, passengers and crew. With one hundred minutes continuously onstage they effortlessly deliver some challenging songs in a variety of styles and perform clever choreography (Kelly Devine) whilst simultaneously flitting between several characters.
With a visually stunning, yet minimal set design (Beowulf Boritt) we’re transported from jumbo jet to bar, Dover Fault to cargo hold, all with little more than a dozen chairs, a few tables and some impressive lighting (Howell Binkley).
The phrase ‘rollercoaster of emotion’ is often overused, but for once it seems perfectly fitting. In Come From Away we witness love, prejudice, grief and joy – one minute the audience are laughing out loud, the next, wiping away a tear.
The devastating events of 9/11, one of the darkest moments in American history, may not initially seem like the best choice, or even an appropriate one, for a musical. But this isn’t a history lesson – the terrorist incidents themselves do not form the basis of the show, in fact they are barely directly mentioned – this is a story about kindness and the proof that evil will never succeed in breaking human spirit even in the darkest depths of adversity.
Throughout previews, the show has had standing ovations nightly – immediate ones from the whole audience. What’s more, most of the audience even remain for the play out track possibly because we get to see the hugely talented band who have spent most of the night tucked away in the wings.
A truly unique and remarkable show which I hope gets the audiences it deserves.
“fearless and anarchic and a delightful rebuff to political correctness”
There is the current argument that the West End has become a very safe artistic world; homogenised and unchallenging, with an eye too much on box office sales. A mirror to the world at large, maybe, that is increasingly fearful of saying the wrong thing or offending the wrong person. Whether one agrees with this or not is irrelevant. All I know is that ‘The Toxic Avenger’ has ripped through this fabric of conventionalism and swept into town like an intoxicating breath of fresh air.
On paper it is such a bizarre, off-the-wall idea. One, I suspect, that would not get through the door of a producer’s office. But Katy Lipson, of Aria Entertainment, has the visionary nerve to grab this beast by the horns and bring it, via Edinburgh and its successful run in Southwark last year, to the Arts Theatre West End. And boy does she do it with gusto!
Based on the 1984 cult film of the same name, with book by Joe DiPietro and music by Bon Jovi band member David Bryan, it is a kind of Incredible Hulk meets Frank-N-Furter musical romp. A story with its tongue literally bursting through its cheek, charting the journey of the eponymous, self-doubting super-hero intent on trying to ‘get the girl’ while simultaneously saving the city from the threat of an evil town mayor. A familiar sounding spoof, but what elevates this musical to the status of masterpiece is its sheer irreverence, daring and unrestrained sense of fun. It is fearless and anarchic and a delightful rebuff to political correctness.
Mark Anderson plays the nerdy Melvin who mutates into the avenging ‘Toxie’, deftly capturing the mix of vulnerability in the former and confused self-righteousness of the monster-on-a-mission in the latter. A devil with the voice of an angel; the entire audience fell for him. On his quest to save the world he enlists the help of blind librarian Sarah, the love of his life (played by Emma Salvo with brilliant comic timing). With her help he very quickly discovers that the town mayor is the ‘bad guy’ (or bad girl in this case), portrayed by Natalie Hope with delicious villainy, yet overflowing with sex appeal. Interestingly she doubles as the hero’s mother – which is used to great comic effect later in the show. But hats off to the two other cast members, Ché Francis and Oscar Conlon-Morrey, who play all the other characters with such dizzying versatility and humour you forget to wonder at how they manage their countless costume changes. Both recent graduates, these are two names to look out for.
I could reel off the highlights of this show but I would be in danger of merely relating the whole story. However the star is the score. Never has pastiche been so expertly delivered. Part of the fun of watching the performance was spotting the myriad musical references, yet the songs still retain an individuality and infectious freshness, with a searing sound from just a four piece band led by musical director Alex Beetschen.
This show is proof that the craziest ideas can yield the best results. It is a show that, from start to finish, never dips. In the opening number the audience are jokingly warned that the performance is eighteen hours long. The irony of this remark is that I really would not have minded if that were true. This is one of those rare productions I could see again and again. I left the theatre with a smile a mile wide. An absolute ‘must see’!